Drones on the up: The difference between US and UK regulations

The US has belatedly permitted six film companies to fly unmanned craft while the UK has dozens.

Hollywood studios and TV producers are hailing a release of US airspace to unmanned drones but the situation is quite different in the UK where aerial filming restrictions are tight but not draconian.

After considerable lobbying by producers and trade bodies like the Motion Picture Association of America, the Obama administration announced a “significant milestone” towards the commercial exploitation of drones opening access to six production companies. These are: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, RC Pro Productions, Vortex Aerial and Snaproll Media.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had held out against any commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in a lock-down which US film-makers argued was forcing them to shoot abroad.

“This will bring a lot of business back home to the United States,” said Chris Dodd, who helped secure the exemptions. “It will create a climate where more production is done at home and allow us to develop cutting-edge technology to make pictures even more imaginative than in the past.”

FAA guidelines nonetheless include: a flight ceiling of 400 feet; restricting the flight zone to 'sterile areas' of closed studios; operation through certificated pilots; keeping drones within an operator’s line of sight and no night flying.

Some of these regulations also apply to the UK aerial filming industry regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), but around 400 companies or individuals have a licence to shoot and fly, not six.

Among them is Skyvantage, based in Reigate, Surrey. It has performed aerial shoots for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2013 and numerous TV commercials, including one for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Aerial view of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, shot from a UAV for a TV commercial

Aerial view of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, shot from a UAV for a TV commercial

“The rules are straight forward depending on the size of drone,” says founder Toby Pocock. “In the sub 7kg category, which is what we fly, you have to allow 50 metre radius in all directions to be clear of anyone or anything. If the drone is over 7kg it's 150m. You also have to have landowner permission to take off and land.”

Like the FAA, the CAA permits flying only up to 400ft high (helicopters cannot fly below 500ft) however Pocock says he can apply for extended heights on a job-by-job basis.

“We can also fly out to 500m giving us a 1km radius and can if required fly at up to approximately 50km/ph but need line of sight with the UAV at all times,” he says.

To be strictly legal three people are required to operate a drone – a pilot, a camera-op and a 'spotter' though in practice drones tend to be a two-person operation.

While flying a UAV requires a pilot's licence, a camera operator needs dexterity. Pocock, intriguingly, finds that this skill is most common in operators who have spent some time game playing with Nintendo and Playstation joysticks.

He estimates that 70% of the enquiries Skyvantage fields are for work they cannot fulfil because it is not possible to gain permissions.

“These are typically PR stunts such as wanting to shoot a POV of Spider-Man along Oxford Street or delivering a box of chocolates to a bystander in Trafalgar Square,” he reports. “There is a huge demand for drones but restrictions placed on them do prevent use. And quite rightly too. If they crash they could kill someone.”

He adds: “If drone operators are to adhere to their licences they need to think firstly as 'pilots' and secondly as 'cameramen'. With many breaking news stories certainly in the UK it is not as simple as just taking off and filming due to safety and planning issues.”

So in theory, the use of UAV for news crews is a great idea but in reality - unless you are going to break UAV flying rules and regulations laid out by the CAA - it may not actually be possible.

“It will be interesting to see if news crews do begin using drones extensively in the UK,” he says. “No doubt there will certainly be situations where they can be very useful and effective, however, just because it is technically possible doesn’t negate the fact that their are strict laws in place governing their commercial use.”

Pocock, a qualified BNUC-S, UAV pilot set up Skyvantage in 2012, says he was drawn to close range aerial filming when he saw the possibilities of filming using remote controlled camera platforms. “The results go well beyond those previously offered with helicopters and Dolly rails and creatively it opens up many more options and gives the viewer a very different experience to static cameras filming at ground level.”

Skyvantage builds its own drones and uses Panasonic GH4 cameras capable of 4K work. The price per job is on an individual basis with factors including the location, risk, amount of pre-shoot work required (such as site visits or obtaining special flying permissions, if required) playing a part. Aerial photography prices start from £895, with aerial filming from £995. The company also offers full editing and film creation packages.

Privacy is another area of concern, the issue highlighted in the US recently when a New Jersey man shot down a neighbour’s camera-equipped drone claiming self-defence. He was arrested for his efforts though the case is not clear cut - some people will feel he had the right to defend himself against an unlawful robot intrusion.

In another invasion of privacy – or possibly canny stealth marketing – the Star Wars set at Pinewood was buzzed by an aerial drone and the video posted online (http://www.theguardian.com/film/video/2014/sep/12/star-wars-set-drone-video). The footage was apparently taken accidentally by a man taking publicity shots for a flying school.

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